fri 12/08/2022

John Grant with Midlake, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

John Grant with Midlake, Royal Festival Hall

John Grant with Midlake, Royal Festival Hall

Joyous celebration of a dark-hearted album

John Grant: those specs aren't rose-tinted

John Grant’s Queen of Denmark was released less than 18 months ago. Yet here it is, already being performed at one these "so-and-so plays such-and-such an album" shows. Does it merit this treatment? Based on last night, yes. This one-off reunion of Grant with his patrons, Texas’s Midlake, lit the Festival Hall with the beauty and literate miserabilism of his songs. In jeans, suit jacket and a T-shirt, Grant strolled on stage and the audience erupted in applause.

He’s touched a chord.

Although last night was billed as “performing the songs from Queen of Denmark” it was more than that. It summarised where John Grant has been, where he is now and where he’s going. Opening with a pair of as yet unrecorded songs that will feature on his next album was statement enough that he’s more than the Queen of Denmark man. Performing songs by his old outfit The Czars (who split in 2004) said that too, but it also suggested the wider – current – audience (me included) may have missed out on something pretty fine. Midlake, though, hadn’t missed out back then and brought us all to the point we were at last night.

Grant is confident on stage, and funny. His easy persona is at odds with many of his songs' dark, lacerating lyrics. But, like the equally quick with a quip Rufus Wainwright, any lightness doesn’t cancel out the impact of the words. Live, hearing "Jesus Hates Faggots" (“Jesus, he hates homos son… or pretty much anything you want him to, like Cocoa Puffs, red cars and Jews, postal clerks who waste your time”) whacks you with the punch Grant can deliver. After becoming used to these lyrics from the album, they leap off the stage. The set’s second song, the new “Viet-Nam”, compares the lyrics' subject’s silence with Agent Orange – “you wield it without fear”. No mellowing for the next album then. He described his new material as “hope you end up in a wheelchair” songs.

Last night opened with another new song, “You Don’t Have To”. His familiar style was there – a familiarity it's impossible to place. “Viet-Nam” felt as though it could have turned into Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”. Randy Newman, Harry Chapin, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Pacific Ocean Blue Dennis Wilson, even Lionel Richie (“Caramel") bubble up, but exact connections can’t be made. “Where Dreams Go to Die” became a Seventies classic, a new “Without You”. The alchemy last night, as it was on Queen of Denmark, is that everything sounds fresh.

Spirited away from the lushness of the studio versions, the songs - not performed in album sequence – were closely patterned on what’s now ingrained, but always subtly realigned. “Chicken Bones” was more herky-jerky, less linear. “Outer Space”, played just about solo with a synth accompanying Grant’s piano, was even more about the mood.

The bond with Midlake is umbilical. They gave their own time to Grant. They opened their homes to him. They backed him. They helped produce Queen of Denmark. Everything is mutual. That family feeling took this show to another place. Grant’s comments about the band and his pair of musical familiars (Chris Pemberton and Fiona Bryce) were pithy pen portraits. Heartfelt and affectionate, but like comedy roasts. When Midlake eventually got a word in, it was the same.

This concert was filled with wonder: wonderful songs, wonderful emotion. Magnetic and self-effacing, Grant is clearly still filled with the antipathy that fed Queen of Denmark. Last night closed that chapter. The next one will be another page-turner.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog

Watch John Grant perform “Where Dreams Go to Die” solo

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